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Keynote Remarks at 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit, Virginia Beach, VA
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Virginia Beach, VA

​Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues,

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak today.  It is an honor to be here at the 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit.  I am delighted to see all of you here, representing Virginia and communities all over our nation – some of you I have known for many years, some you I have had the pleasure of meeting just this morning, and some of you I hope to meet soon.  But you all have one important characteristic in common – and that is that, each of you, in your own way, has advanced knowledge about or worked on efforts to reduce the dangerous – and unhealthy - practice of distracted driving. 

And that is a hard task.  Hard because distraction is so complex and hard because the topic and its study encompasses many factors – the road, the vehicle, and the person.  And hard because there are so many methods and angles to tackle this problem –work environment, laws and enforcement, behavior change, technology, safety culture, and so  much more.  So I was very excited to see – although not surprised considering the people who are here today and the people who organized this conference – that this Summit encompasses so many facets of this complex problem of distraction and how we can stop it.

Those of you who have met me may know that I come from a public health background – a background that some of you also share.  So I naturally think of things as healthy or unhealthy.  And if it is unhealthy, then my immediate question is:  what can we do to prevent it? 

Prevention is the cornerstone of public health.  And those of us trained in public health think that almost everything can be prevented if we can just figure out the cause and disseminate the treatment, whether that treatment is a vaccine or a behavior modification such as not smoking. 

And that is true in the specific field of injury prevention that is part of public health also.  We reduced the temperature of hot water heaters by a few degrees to reduce burns, we increased the use of smoke alarms to prevent deaths in fires, and of course, we (including many of you) worked on a myriad of issues in motor vehicle injury prevention such as occupant protection and impaired driving. 

Since the advent of the automobile, we have had to deal with the issue of distraction.  Drivers felt distracted by windshield wipers, by the radio, by their passengers, and by many other methods – including a few drivers who, believe it or not, practiced musical instruments while driving.  But now, distraction is arguably one of the hardest issues to address in traffic safety because it is a part of our everyday lives and now, with more and more technology, we simply have more ways of being distracted in our cars. 

Most people don’t think of being distracted as unhealthy.  They think of it as just a part of life.  It is harder and harder to disconnect from technology in particular, and we are seeing, as you know all too well, more and more accidents – in all modes of transportation – where distraction, such as from our ever-present Portable Electronic Devices, is a cause or a contributing factor.  But we can do something about it.

I am very proud to be part of the National Transportation Safety Board, because the sole purpose of our existence, as mandated by Congress, is to independently investigate accidents in all modes of transportation to find out what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, to prevent it from happening again. 

We are composed of over 400 hardworking and highly competent staff, a few of whom are here today, and the Board is made up of independent Board Members nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate.  We issue Safety Recommendations based on each of our accident investigations and, every year, we also issue the NTSB Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements to highlight specific safety issues.  This year, “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions” is on our Most Wanted List and encompasses distraction in all modes of transportation.

As you will hear in much greater detail from Dr. Bob Beaton and Mr. Nicholas Worrell later this morning, in the “A Multi-Modal Approach to Distractions” panel, in recent years, the NTSB has investigated crashes where distraction has been a cause or contributing factor in different modes - highway, rail, marine, and aviation. 

One of our first investigations where we found distraction played a role was in 2002 when 5 people died when a young driver who was talking on her cell phone crashed into a minivan in Largo, Maryland.  That has been followed by other horrific accidents such as the commuter train accident in Chatsworth, CA, in 2008, where 25 people died and 102 were injured, due to an engineer texting and talking on his phone; and the duck boat accident in Philadelphia where 2 people died and 26 were injured due to a tugboat mate using a laptop and cell phone; and the crash of a small plane in Colorado just last year caused by the pilot and the passenger taking photos, including selfies, while flying low.  There are many others.  All were needless, all were preventable. 

These and other investigations have led to NTSB Safety Recommendations on preventing distracted driving related to novice drivers and commercial drivers, related to operators of airplanes, trains, and marine vessels.  And in 2011, based on the investigation of a multi-vehicle crash in Missouri, we called for a nationwide ban on nonemergency use of Portable Electronic Devices for all drivers.  While this doesn’t address all forms of distraction, it is a start. But it is just a start.  We are relying on you, as researchers, as advocates, as law enforcement, as concerned citizens, to continue to help our nation shape the dialogue on distraction – as you have been doing for so many years - so that we can create a culture where distraction, like smoking or drunk driving, is known to be terribly, dangerously unhealthy, and completely unacceptable.  You have done so much but as you know more than anyone, there is more to be done.

I should tell you that, in late 1996, I myself was involved a crash caused by a distracted driver in Houston, Texas.  It was a morning I will never forget. I was driving straight down Almeda Road, on my way to the Texas Medical Center to turn in my thesis for my Masters degree in public health, when a distracted driver coming out of a dry cleaners attempted to cross the road and crashed into my vehicle and another vehicle, sending an older woman and myself to the Emergency Room.  Because of that crash, I had 6 months of physical therapy and neck, shoulder, and back injuries that still flare up today. 

And why was the gentleman distracted that day?  Because he was trying to adjust the radio.  When I later learned that I was enduring hours of painful physical therapy every week because someone decided to adjust a radio, I can tell you, I was mad. 

But looking back, I realize I was lucky that day in Houston.  Lucky because the crash was not as severe as it could have been and lucky because the first responders were there quickly and – despite my ridiculous requests to “please just save my thesis” – got me into an ambulance and to the Ben Taub ER nearby, an ER where I used to volunteer and where my brother, a surgeon, happened to be on call so he could take care of me when I arrived.  And yes, I should tell you, those police officers and EMTs did save my thesis from the wreckage and I was able to graduate on time.  I would like to take a moment to thank the law enforcement, EMTs, and other first responders who are here– I wouldn’t be here today without dedicated (and patient) professionals like you.

I was lucky.  And I know I was much, much luckier than so many people.  Like the people whom we remember in the Faces of Distracted Driving.  Each of them is loved and remembered.  We appreciate that their loved ones have the courage to come today, and probably a hundred other days, to speak out to prevent distracted driving.  Thank you to each of you.  I know you do it to honor your loved one’s memory but it makes all the difference to our work to have you here.  And it is, in part, in honor of your loved ones that we all do what we do – to honor their memories by doing everything we can to prevent others from dying or being injured, because of distraction. 

I walk or ride my bicycle every day – taking turns with my husband to take our son to school or pick him up.  Lately, I’ve been hearing the cool, young people in my neighborhood say “chin up” to people who are walking on the sidewalk with their heads down absorbed in their electronic device.  My 7 year old loves that saying and, when we are on our bikes waiting to cross a street, has even tried to say “chin up” to people in their car at a stop who have their heads down. 

I like it, too – chin up – a reminder to people to lift their heads, disconnect from whatever the distraction might be, and pay attention to the world around them when sharing a sidewalk. 

But “chin up” is also a reminder to those of us who are working in this field to stay positive, keep our focus, and keep at it – whether it is learning more and more about the science of distraction so we can understand it better, or using that science to advocate and enforce to prevent the dangers of distraction - on our roads, in our communities, workplaces, schools, and all across our nation. 

Thank you for your lifesaving work.  Let’s all keep our chins up and our focus on saving lives and preventing injuries. 

Thank you and enjoy the conference.